A Mother’s Love

Rita Lucas speaks out about her son’s struggles with mental illness and addiction after his standoff with Jackson law enforcement

Charlie Lucas, pictured here, in his youth. (Courtesy photo from the Lucas family) 

By Alec Klein

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Editor’s Note: This story is part of an ongoing series about the impact of the lack of inpatient rehabilitation treatment centers in Jackson Hole. It discusses drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness and suicide. Reader discretion is advised. 

What do you do when your child is in trouble?

For Rita Lucas, it has been an enduring question—guided by a mother’s love—given her son’s battle with mental illness, addiction and now criminal charges after a recent standoff with police and sheriff’s deputies in Jackson.

The first thing she wants to clear up is that her son, Charlie, never intended to hurt anyone—except himself—on Aug. 29. That’s when events spiraled and authorities put out a warning of an “active shooter.” He was accused of firing a gun at his mother and faces an attempted murder charge. He was also accused of firing a weapon at his girlfriend and faces a false imprisonment charge.

But Rita said Charlie, who is 23 years old, was experiencing a “mental health crisis.” She also said that what has been reported in the local news media “got completely blown out of proportion.” And she said that, while Charlie fired shots, he never pointed a gun at anyone.

“Charlie’s only intention that day was to kill himself,” said Rita in her first interview, an exclusive with the Wyoming Truth, since her son’s arrest in the wake of the tense standoff with authorities.

What has been portrayed in the press about her son is not who he is, Rita said. Charlie is a fifth-generation resident of Jackson. His father’s ancestors homesteaded here in 1896, arriving in Jackson from central Wyoming on an elk hunting trip. They were stranded by bad weather and ended up staying when the government offered them 320 acres—160 acres each for the husband and wife—to embark on a life of ranching, which continues to this day.

It’s a 365 day-a-year cow calf operation; the family births and sells calves in the fall to another rancher. There’s nothing easy about it. It’s impossible to have a plan because you never know what proverbial fires you’ll have to extinguish. Rita, her husband, Russ, and other members of the family, including cousins, don’t go on vacations; there’s always someone here, looking after the cows with the tender care of children.

This ranch is Charlie’s birthright, along with his younger brother. Charlie grew up, by all accounts, as a happy, goofy child with a blond tuft of hair, blue eyes and a big smile.

When he was about 4 years old, he would climb onto an old clunker of a snowmobile and ride it literally about 200 miles a day around the ranch, all day, from dark to dark.

Charlie, an independent and adventuresome child by nature, would explore the expansive terrain. He rode horses. He laughed a lot, too. And he played pranks. As he grew, he started riding cows on the ranch, just for fun. But the riding got serious by the time he turned about 14 years old. That’s when he began riding bulls in local rodeos, backyard rodeos and other smalltown rodeos. The rough nature of the rides, of course, worried his mom, especially when he fell.

“You don’t want to see your kid beat up,” she said of his rodeo riding.

But there was no stopping Charlie. He also raced snowmobiles in competitive hill climbs. Those often led to crashes. All of the falls from the bull riding and snowmobiles mounted. “It took a toll on him with concussions,” said Rita, who added that she “can’t even count” how many concussions Charlie sustained over several years as a teenager.

But it was when he was a sophomore in high school that, she said, “we really noticed a difference” in Charlie’s behavior. He was filled with anxiety and depression.

It came to a head during a parent-teacher conference when a teacher said that Charlie was struggling in school, and Rita, sitting next to her son, caught sight of the terror in his eyes.

“I could see a torment in him that I’d never seen before,” she said. He was so overcome with stress and anxiety that he couldn’t speak during the school meeting. “He was literally choking,” she said.

Within months, his best friend was killed in a ATV—an all-terrain vehicle—that had rolled over in an accident. “It was devastating,” she said of the effect on Charlie, who didn’t know how to cope with the loss.

Rita decided to pull Charlie out of school and keep a closer eye on him by home schooling him. But, she explained, things only worsened: After finishing high school, while he worked on the ranch, Charlies began to suffer seizures regularly. He was taken to neurologists, who diagnosed him with a traumatic brain injury, a result of multiple concussions, which appeared to cause other problems, including impulse control and a lack of understanding about the consequences of his actions.

Along the way, Charlie began to use some of his prescribed medication, including painkillers, to find a way out of what ailed him. “He liked the escape of it, but it was not doing him any good,” Rita said.

Then, a few years ago, he tried alcohol. He didn’t drink in front of anyone. He’d sit in his car at night to drink. It wasn’t a social thing. It was, Rita said, “always an escape. He tried to soften the pain with anything he could get his hands on.”

But Charlie couldn’t handle the alcohol. “A couple of drinks, and he’s a different person,” she said.

Xanax, the antidepressant, was added to the mix of alcohol, and before long, Charlie “had an addiction to both, to escape the demons in his head,” Rita said.

“You have no idea what it’s like in my head,” he’d tell his parents.

Rehab didn’t help, either. Because Jackson has no inpatient rehab services, Charlie went out of state several times for short stints in rehab over the past few years. The salve was temporary. “He could stop the substance abuse, but he couldn’t stop the demons,” Rita said.

It got to the point, in recent years, where Charlie “tried to kill himself multiple times,” Rita said, adding, “When he drinks, he wants to die.”

When Charlie threatened to hurt himself, it was always with a gun, she said. Firearms are commonly involved in suicides in Wyoming, a state that struggles with one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. In those moments of despair, Charlie will put a gun to his head in front of family members. They’ll plead with him to put it down. And eventually, he will be talked down.

“He wants us to know how bad everything is,” Rita said. “That he is just screaming for help.”

The cry for help took a turn on the evening of Aug. 29. Here’s what Rita described happened: Charlie came home from a counseling session at about 8:30 p.m. He was afraid of losing his legacy—the ranch—given all the pressures and problems that came with it, including the possibility that other people will seek to take it away from his family.

At one point that evening, Rita got into the driver’s seat of a Dodge truck and started to drive off, thinking it might help deescalate the situation. She said Charlie fired a shot into the back passenger window into the back seat of the Dodge but that he wasn’t shooting at his mother.

“He was begging me to not leave,” she said.

The same was the case with his girlfriend, who went to her car when he shot out two of the tires, Rita said. He didn’t want his girlfriend to leave. “She wasn’t held a prisoner,” Rita said, adding that, “He wanted us to stay and hear his pain, to know his pain.”

What followed was a standoff that lasted for over two hours between Charlie and law enforcement and emergency responders who arrived on the scene. Authorities put into effect a “shelter-in-place” order. Charlie threatened to kill himself and begged for help before eventually turning himself over, Rita said.

Charlie, now being held in the Jackson jail, faces up to life in prison if convicted of the criminal charges. The case is pending a psychology evaluation to see if he is fit to stand trial, Rita said. She declined to discuss the legal aspects of the case. Charlie is represented by attorney Inga Parsons, who serves as a member of the board of advisers of the Wyoming Truth.

“If you don’t live with addiction,” Rita said, “you don’t understand the depths of despair” that her son experiences. While she said it’s hard to know how to help him, she hopes Charles emerges from this long, painful period as a “healed person.”

Charlie, the son she has always known, loves animals, and he’s joyful when he’s right. “He’s easy to love,” Rita said. “He’s all heart. He’s the type of kid, he’ll tell you 10 times a day he loves you. It never goes unsaid.”

And, Rita added, if there is a lesson from what happened to Charlie, it’s that “it can happen to anyone.”

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